Winning the Business

Every RFP Is a Game

How responding to RFPs is similar to developing board game rulebooks

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On weekdays, I respond to RFPs, but on the weekends, I’m an editor of board and card game rulebooks. In my years of doing both, I’ve found many similarities between these documents. Both try to convey a set of (often complex) instructions for meeting an objective, whether that’s winning a game or winning the business. If you’re a board gamer, what lessons can you glean that are applicable to proposal writing?

Play the Game, Play Your Opponents

No matter if you’re reading a rulebook for a board game based on 16th-century subsistence farming or an RFP for millions of dollars of modern farming equipment, your end goal is the same: You want to win. While many games have a solitaire variant, most RFPs don’t. You’ll have competition.

Knowing your competitors allows you to forecast their responses, in turn allowing you to differentiate yourself.

Knowing your competitors allows you to forecast their responses, in turn allowing you to differentiate yourself. If you know that your competition tends to write verbose, technically complex prose, then consider writing in a more straightforward, approachable style. Much has already been written about “ghosting”—emphasizing your abilities in areas where you know your competition is weak. The point is, as you read every requirement, don’t stop at “Can we do this?” Think instead, “How can we do this better than anyone else?”

Be a ‘Rules Lawyer’

In the board game community, being a “rules lawyer” is generally frowned upon. This is the type of person who brings the flow of the game to a standstill to debate the minutiae of some obscure rule. The negative connotation comes from the idea that the rules lawyer is acting disingenuously—that he or she knows exactly what the intent of the rule is but instead is focusing on a rule’s ambiguity to gain an advantage.

However, when faced with an ambiguous RFP requirement, there are situations in which it makes sense to choose a favorable interpretation. In such responses, I like to make my assumptions clear by immediately paraphrasing the requirement as I interpret it. For instance, I might begin with, “We assume that this requirement is asking whether state personnel can customize their own reports. With that assumption in mind, our system complies in that …”

It’s All About the Victory Conditions

Any board game rulebook worth its salt should tell the reader one vital piece of information as early as possible: how to win. I’ve seen players spend all their time exploring the limits of a game’s mechanics. They get caught up in building the perfect army, bankroll, or whatever in-game resource catches their eye. Then, at the end, they look up to find that every other player has passed them by on the scoring track—the only measure that determines a winner.

An RFP’s evaluation section is the equivalent of a game’s scoring track. Once you know where the points are going to be, don’t fall into the trap of spending precious pages on sections where the points aren’t.

An RFP’s evaluation section is the equivalent of a game’s scoring track. Once you know where the points are going to be, don’t fall into the trap of spending precious pages on sections where the points aren’t. Most of us have content libraries. However, the number of words you have sitting around should not determine the number of words that go in a section; the evaluation criteria should. If you have thousands of words on data security, but data security is only 5 percent of the final score, match the content to its value per the RFP. Your reader’s attention span is a finite resource, and you must spend it strategically.

In your games and your RFPs, I wish you good luck!


Mark Pollard is a proposal coordinator at IC System, a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based accounts receivable management firm. He can be reached at mpollard@icsystem.com.

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